Bert Decker has written a comprehensive reply on his blog to my first post on the Mehrabian myth. However, I disagree with his interpretation of Mehrabian’s research and in a moment I’ll show you why.
But before I do, I want to say that I greatly appreciate Bert and his contribution to the presentation and public speaking blogosphere. He is a great friend and mentor to me. He has encouraged me in my blogging and helped me to take my first steps on Twitter. Regarding this issue, we’ve had e-mail correspondence behind the scenes and I think we’re both quite comfortable about having an intellectual disagreement about the issues.
Bert is not the only blogger to make what I see as a misinterpretation. Since writing my first post, I’ve found that it’s a common secondary misinterpretation made by people who know you can’t apply Mehrabian’s formula to all communications.
The misinterpretation of Mehrabian
Bert agrees that the application of the 7-38-55% formula to all communications is not warranted. However, he says that how a listener feels about a speaker depends 7% on words, 38% on vocals and 55% on the visual:
The most important takeaway is that when there is an inconsistent message, the listener will overwhelmingly judge the visual cues more as to whether they like (trust and believe) the speaker. [emphasis added]
In other words, Bert is saying that Mehrabian measured whether the listener liked or disliked the speaker. So Bert has interpreted the question being considered as “Does the listener like the speaker?” :
What was Mehrabian measuring?
Here were the instructions to the observers in Mehrabian’s 1967 experiments:
Each time you hear the speaker say a word, we would like you to judge the degree of the speaker’s positive versus negative attitude towards the addressee. “Positive” refers to liking, … and “negative” refers to disliking, … of the addressee. [emphasis added].
So the question being considered was “Does the speaker like the listener?”
Mehrabian was measuring how other people could tell whether the speaker liked the listener. The research measured the observers’ judgement of the speaker’s feelings about the listener- not the listener’s feelings about the speaker.
Therefore I believe that the interpretation that how a listener feels about a speaker depends 7% on words, 38% on vocals and 55% on the visual – is also wrong.
Note: For more information on Mehrabian’s 1967 research see Mehrabian’s studies in nonverbal communication.
Source of the confusion
This is an easy misinterpretation to make if you rely on Mehrabian’s web page about his book “Silent Messages”. Mehrabian shows this equation:
Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking
If you don’t know the context, it would be easy to assume that this equation is equivalent to saying “Your liking of someone depends 7% on their words (verbal), 38% on their tone of voice (vocal) and 55% on their facial expression”.
Going back to the original research, however, makes it clear that this equation means “When an observer is judging whether the speaker likes the listener the observer relies 7% on the verbal, 38% on the vocal and 55% on the facial”.
Does liking equate to trust and believability?
Bert has extrapolated “liking” to include “trust and believability”. If you accept that Mehrabian’s research was about the speaker’s feelings towards the listener, then whether liking includes trust and believability is no longer relevant.
But let’s say I was wrong on that, I would have an issue with this extrapolation. Liking someone does not necessarily mean that you trust and believe them. Nor does dislike automatically lead to distrust. For example, I might dislike a person but still trust that they’ll do what they say. The words “trust” and “believable” are found nowhere in the original research. If a psychologist were doing an experiment on liking and trust, I’m confident they would measure them separately. It’s possible that liking might correlate with trust and believability in some circumstances, but I would want to see research on this before saying they were equivalent.
My aim in this series of posts is to remove the confusion surrounding Mehrabian’s research. I think it’s important not to stretch research findings further than is warranted.
I agree with Bert that emotional impact is important and that the way a speaker comes across can increase or reduce that emotional impact. But I don’t think the emotional impact can be reduced to a formula, and I’m not convinced that the nonverbal cues are more important than the content of the message.
In my next post, I’ll be looking at research on nonverbal communication which has been carried out more recently and what that research tells us about the importance of nonverbal communication.